Saturday, October 29, 2016

Prompt #265 – Behind the Mask


With Halloween just a couple of days away, masks and their particular psychology seems an appropriate subject for this week's poems—not literal masks, but the emotional and psychological variety.

In ancient Celtic times, people believed that they needed masks as protection against evil spirits that appeared around All Hallows’ Eve. Masks are still popular, and this time of year is characterized by every kind of mask from Snow White and Elvira the Vampire to Robin Hood and Freddy Krueger. However, there are masks that people wear year round that are psychological masks to protect themselves from various insecurities. 

At one point or another, we all fear revealing our true selves, and so we hide behind masks of seeming indifference when we care too much, anger when we’ve been hurt, bullying when we feel we have no power, wearing expensive or outré clothing when we feel inferior, and outward shows of success when things like jobs and marriages are failing. Just as children (and many adults as well) do on Halloween, we all (from time to time) mask who we really are and take on a sense of being something other than our true selves. The “masks” we wear protect us from our vulnerabilities.

This week’s prompt deals with acknowledging a “mask” you’ve worn at some point in your life (past or present) to hide your true feelings from others, to hide something imperfect about yourself from the rest of the world, to make yourself feel better about something going on in your life, to hide emotional scars, or to help you move forward. 


1. Begin by thinking about times you've worn a metaphorical "mask." Then, on paper, generate a simple list of those times.

2. Look at your list and pick a time to write abut (only one time). 

3. Consider the emotional reasons you wore a mask, reasons you felt a need to hide your true feelings from someone (or several "someones").

4.  How did you hide who you were or might become? What was the nature of your "mask?"

5. Here’s a formula for starters, which may be helpful. Remember that this to get you started if you’re not sure how to beginyou’re not bound to this in any way.

Line 1 (or more): Set the scene or time.

Line 2 (or more): Identify who else figures in the “story.”

Line 3 (or more): What happened to make you feel a need to hide something?

Line 4 (or more): What was it like behind your mask? 

Line 5 (or more): How different are the masked you and the real you?

Line 6 (or more): How did you (or perhaps you haven’t) let the mask drop?

6. After you've worked your poem into a form that feels close to finished, give it some time away and then come back to it. Read it out loud. Edit and tune it. 


When you start writing, you might consider using paragraph form. This may develop into a prose poem, or you may wish to work out lines after you’ve drafted the paragraph(s).

Link the end of the poem to the beginning but not overtly.

Leave your reader something to reflect upon.

Challenge the ordinary—connect, reveal, surprise

Create unique and startling imagery.

Avoid the passive voice and "ing" endings; remove prepositional phrases whenever you can.  

Remember that too many adjectives can ruin an otherwise good poem.  

Point toward something broader than the obvious content of the poem.

Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”

If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.

Example:  We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
              We wear the mask!

And now, for some Halloween fun,
my distinguished poet friend, BoneYard the Poet Ghoul,
wears the "mask" of his ghoulishly delightful persona in this Elegant Skulls video. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Prompt #264 – Making More of Revision by Guest Prompter Diane Lockward

I’m sure many of you have copies of Diane Lockward's The Crafty Poet (published in 2013, and reissued in 2016 in a revised edition) in your poetry libraries. Well, there’s great news! Diane and Terrapin Books recently came out with The Crafty Poet II—a companion to Crafty I and another substantial volume packed with craft tips, poems, and much more. This companion to Volume I is similarly designed with the same cover and the contents divided into sections. Each of the ten sections in Crafty II “include three craft tips, each provided by an experienced, accomplished poet. Each of these thirty craft tips is followed by a model poem and a prompt based on the poem. Each model poem is used as a mentor, again expressing the underlying philosophy of the first book that the best teacher of poetry is a good poem. You will find that the model poems receive more analysis than in the first book and that the prompts are a bit more challenging. Each prompt is followed by two Sample poems, which suggest the possibilities for the prompts and should provide for good discussion about what works and what doesn't. Each section includes a Poet on the Poem Q&A about the craft elements in one of the featured poet's poems. Each section concludes with a Bonus Prompt, each of which provides a stimulus on those days when you just can't get your engine started.” 
In order to give you a small sampling of the new book, Diane Lockward is our guest blogger this week with a prompt that addresses the process of revision (and we all know how challenging effective revision can be). The suggestions posted here are only some of those in the book.
From The Crafty Poet II , Craft Tip #29 – Making More of Revision by Diane Lockward    
During revision discussions, we poets hear a lot about compression, reducing clutter, and cutting out the non-essential. Who hasn’t sat in a poetry class or workshop and been told that less is more? So when someone tells us to add more, to expand, to keep going, we might be hesitant to pay attention.
But we should pay attention. The less-is-more principle is often good advice, but it’s not always good advice. As I once heard Mark Doty say, Sometimes more is more.
Too often we start revising and hacking away at the poem before it’s even fully written. We quit before we’ve given the poem life, before we’ve discovered its full potential, before we’ve found its real material.

Stephen Dunn addresses the topic of revision in a 2007 interview in The Pedestal Magazine:  
A fairly new experience that I’ve been having is revision as expansion. Most of us know about revision as an act of paring down. Several years ago, in looking at my work, I saw that I was kind of a page or page and a half kind of poet, which meant that I was thinking of closure around the same time in every poem. I started to confound that habit. By mid-poem, I might add a detail that the poem couldn’t yet accommodate. That’s especially proven to be an interesting and useful way of revising poems that seem too slight or thin; to add something put an obstacle in. The artificial as another way to arrive at the genuine—an old story, really.
Before you begin to strip down your poem or abandon it as no good or decide it’s good enough as it is, first consider how you might expand your poem. The following expansion strategies just might help you to discover your poem’s true potential and arrive at the genuine.
      1.    Choose a single poem by someone else, one that has strong diction. Take ten words from that poem and, in no particular order, plug them into your own draft. Make them make sense within the context of your poem, adjusting your context as needed. Or let the words introduce an element of the strange, a touch of the surreal.
     2.    Find the lifeless part of your poem. This is often the part where your mind begins to wander when you read the poem aloud. Open up space there and keep on writing in that space. Repeat elsewhere if needed. Remember that freewriting can occur not only while drafting but also while revising.
     3.    Find three places in the poem where you could insert a negative statement. Then go into the right margin of your draft and write those statements. Add them to the poem. By being contrary, you might add depth and richness to the poem.
     4.    Put something into your poem that seemingly doesn’t belong, perhaps some kind of food, a tree, a piece of furniture, a policeman, or a dog. Elaborate.
     5.    Midway or two-thirds into your poem, insert a story, perhaps something from the newspaper, a book you’ve read, a fable, or a fairy tale. Don’t use the entire story, just enough of it to add some texture and weight to your poem. Your challenge is to find the connection between this new material and what was already in the poem. 
Now go into your folder of old, abandoned poems, the ones you gave up on when you decided they just weren’t going anywhere. Then get out some of your recent poems that feel merely good enough, the ones that never gave you that jolt of excitement we get when a poem is percolating. Finally, return to some of the poems that you’ve submitted and submitted with no success, those poor rejects. 
Mark all of these poems as once again in progress. Now apply some of the expansion strategies and see if you can breathe new life into the poems. Remember that this kind of revision is not a matter of merely making the poem longer; it’s a matter of making the poem better.
Many thanks to Diane for this “taster” from The Crafty Poet II
Like Crafty I, this new volume is an invaluable resource for poets, teachers, and students—
definitely one that no poet should be without.
To Order Your Copy of THE CRAFTY POET II, Click Here  

If You Don't Have a Copy of Crafty I, Click Here to Order 

Friday, October 7, 2016

In Memoriam – Gail Fishman Gerwin

Gail Fishman Gerwin
May 7, 1939 – October 3, 2016

It is with a sense of profound personal loss that I share with you the sad news that Gail Fishman Gerwin, who wrote last week’s prompt for us, passed away on Monday, October 3rd after months of treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Gail was one of my dearest friends.

Some of you will remember Gail from previous prompts and posts. She was a gifted poet who took special joy in sharing poetry with others, and she touched countless lives with her love and her words. 

Gail is survived by her husband of 48 years, Dr. Kenneth S. Gerwin; her daughter, Karen Gerwin, son-in-law, Michael Stoopack, and grandchildren Ben and Liv Stoopack; her daughter Kate Goldberg, son-in-law Dean Goldberg, and grandsons, Jordan and Brandon Goldberg; she is also survived by a sister, Carol Miller.

 (Gail & Ken Gerwin)  

(Gail & Ken's Daughters, Karen & Kate)

(Gail & Her Much-Loved Grandchildren: Jordan, Liv, Brandon, and Ben)

A native of Paterson, NJ, Gail received her bachelor's degree from Goucher College in 1961, where she was Phi Beta Kappa. She was an elementary school teacher in Ridgewood, NJ, and then took a job in the public relations department at NYU Medical Center. After raising her daughters, she worked in the public relations department at Sea Land and, in 1984, established her own freelance writing/editing firm, inedit (Morristown, NJ). Also a dog breeder, Gail spent many years devotedly breeding champion Cairn Terriers. She taught her first Cairn, Schepseleh Darling, to say "Mama," and Gail loved her Cairn Terriers so much that when she established her own poetry press, she used her kennel name and called the press ChayaCairn:

 (Above – Gail's Beloved Cairn Terrier Eliza Jane: December 31, 2002 – December 14, 2015
Below – Gail's GrandCairn, baby Zeke)
In addition to her beloved dogs, Gail had a deep and abiding respect for wildlife and the natural world: squirrels, bunnies, chipmunks, the goldfinches and hummingbirds that came to her feeders, the turkeys that paraded through her neighborhood, and even a vagrant pigeon who took up residence in her yard. Her delight in "all creatures great and small" was very much a part of who she was.

                                   (Gail and Eliza Jane at a Blessing of Pets, the Pigeon, 
                    Turkeys on Parade in Gail’s Neighborhood, and Goldfinches at Gail's Feeder)

Gail was a Renaissance woman of the highest order. In 1996, she earned her master's degree in creative writing from NYU, where she studied with Ann Hood and discovered an abiding love for writing poetry. Her first book (a poetry memoir), Sugar and Sand, was a 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize finalist; her second book, Dear Kinfolk, received a 2013 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. Her poem “A State in Mind” was a third-prize winner in the 2015 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards. Her most recent book, Crowns, was published in 2016. Her poetry, book reviews, short fiction, essays, and plays have appeared in a wide range of print journals and anthologies, in online literary journals, and on stage. Among numerous other readings, Gail performed several times in the Carriage House Poetry Series, reading her own work and portraying both Sylvia Plath (November 2015) and Dorothy Parker (June 2013).

(Above & Below: Gail as Sylvia Plath in the Carriage House Production "A Legacy of Words.")

In addition to being a close personal friend, I had the privilege of working with Gail for Tiferet Journal, which she served for several years as associate poetry editor. She loved presenting workshops, giving readings, and sharing her love of poetry with audiences of students, seniors, and every age in between. She was generous and caring, always ready to think of others before herself; her intelligence and quick wit were graced by a wonderful laugh. More than anything else, she loved spending time with her family, often gifting family members with poems that she wrote especially for them.

In a LitBridge interview, Gail said of her poems, “I write. Others create visual art. Others share through conversation. It is crucial for me to record my story and to pass a legacy to the next generation and hopefully to reach a larger readership able to identify with my experiences, which are not unique but simply there in a different costume. Like many, I didn’t ask enough questions when my parents were alive and I regret it but I have found documents, letters, and many photos, and have used these to let my children and grandchildren know who I was and how I felt about this and how I feel about them. I began this process with my first book Sugar and Sand and continue to add narratives to their collection. I also wanted to provide a sharp sense of place and to project the warmth that memories allow.” (Source:

Years ago, shortly after meeting Gail, I asked her how she became interested in poetry. Without hesitating for a second she said, “Because I want to leave my girls and my grandchildren something more than memories—I want them to have something of me to hold after I'm gone.” Gail did exactly that through her poems and her books.

By way of sharing, here are links to some of Gail’s poems.
(Click on each to read.)


May Gail rest in God’s peace. 
She is greatly missed by all who knew and loved her.

זיכרונה לברכה
zikhronah livrakha

May her memory be a blessing.   

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Prompt #263 – Fibonacci Poems by Gail Gerwin

My dear friend and fellow poet, Gail Fishman Gerwin, 
prepared this prompt on the Fibonacci for us,
 and I'm pleased to share it with you this week—with many thanks to Gail.

Write a Narrative Fibonacci

Several years ago, I was fortunate to receive an invitation to read at the Barron Arts Center’s PoetsWednesday in Woodbridge, NJ. The series offers workshops prior to the features and open readings. Luckily, that evening renowned poet Joe Weil facilitated a lesson on how to write a Fibonacci, a poetic form named for 13th century mathematician Leonardo Pisano, later known as Fibonacci. That night’s workshop dealt with one form of Fibonacci. The formula:

First line – one syllable or word
Second line – one syllable or word (0 +1, sum of previous two lines)
Third line – two syllables or words (1+1, same pattern)
Fourth line – three syllables or words (1+2)
Fifth line – five syllables or words (2+3)
Sixth line – eight syllables or words (3+5)
Seventh line – thirteen syllables or words (5+8)
Then reverse:
Eighth line – eight syllables or words
Ninth line – five syllables or words
Tenth line – three syllables or words
Eleventh line – two syllables or words
Twelfth line – one syllable or word
Thirteenth line – one syllable or word

The finished product: an interesting-looking narrative.

I preferred the word count to the syllable count. I chose a television show of my youth, starring Milton Berle, a comedian; it was live television in black and white. Families would gather in some lucky person’s living room at 8 p.m. on Tuesday nights (not everyone owned even a single TV) to watch.

Many early television sets were made by a company named Dumont. The screens were small but the laughs were large. Some skits were extremely silly, like when Milton called “make-up,” someone would come out and smack him in the face with a big powder puff and he always acted surprised. You can see an example of this on an old Donny and Marie YouTube ( at about minute 3:07 (+/-).

When I received Joe’s prompt to compose a Fibonacci with the above formula about something in my past, I thought of Uncle Miltie, as he was called with affection. One feature of the show involved an ad for the Texaco gas company, where service-station attendants sang a jingle that began “We are the men of Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico . . . Everyone watching knew this song and could sing along. Hence the mention of Texaco men in the poem below. I like to put dialogue in italics, not quotation marks.

Slapstick Fibonacci

Tuesday nights.
Whack! Maaaaaaaakeup. Hilarity.
Dust flies on the set.
Oh no, who turned the sound way down?
Fix it Daddy. I can't. Just go to bed, there's always next week.
There it goes, Ben, it's on again. Whew.
Can I stay up, Mommy,
‘til Texaco men?
Why not?

After that summer evening, when Joe introduced me to the form, everyone in my family received Fibs as birthday poems. Muse-Pie Press’s The Fib Review, an online literary journal edited by Mary-Jane Grandinetti, published that one and another I wrote about my obsession with the style.

Check out The Fib Review’s current issue and archives. 

  • Explore the variety of Fibonacci styles.
  • They don’t always follow the 1-1-2-3-5-8-13-8-5-3-2-1-1 format (my personal comfort zone). 
  • They’re not all narrative. Some may take on the image of what the words describe.
  •  See if you can figure out which formulas the poets used. 
  • Was there more than a single stanza? If so, did they take the same shape? 
  • Then write a Fibonacci of your own and think about posting it in a comment on this blog.

Happy Fibbing.


 Many thanks, Gail!